An industry veteran with over forty years of experience working on some of the greatest titles of all time, Howard Chaykin breathes life back into a 1970's pulp hero with his latest graphic novel. Neal Fargo was a gun-for-hire at the turn of the 20th-century, and now he's looking more badass than ever in this latest iteration!
COMIC BOOK YETI: Howard, it is a distinct honor to have you join us in the Yeti Cave today. How’s everything going in California?
HOWARD CHAYKIN: Thanks for having me.
CBY: The pleasure is all ours! Once the Zoop team let us know you were working on FARGO: Hell on Wheels, I was grateful for the opportunity to learn a bit about your process. I immediately recalled early imagery from picking up second-hand copies of your original run of Star Wars comics in my school library in the late 80’s/early 90’s as well - your illustrations have remained vivid in my mind. Given your central role in this adaptation, I take it the original pulp series made a similarly indelible impression on you upon first encountering them. Can you share how you discovered the original books and your experiences with them? Of over 20 installments in the FARGO series, why did Hell on Wheels merit your first crack at the character?
HC: I was introduced to the FARGO series only recently, by the estimable Michael Stradford. I had never heard of them before, and was immediately engaged. The decision to adapt HELL ON WHEELS, the fifth in the series, was simple – it seemed the best introduction to the character, having in its narrative all of the elements that preceded it, but in one book.
CBY: Ah, so that's when it finally hit its stride. Now, I was curious about the Fargo books as they predate me (I was learning to read with some of your Star Wars comics around when you released Wolverine/Nick Fury: The Scorpio Connection book). Reflecting on the 1965-74 landscape in which Clint Eastwood was starring in westerns that influenced Wolverine’s creation, the character of Neal Fargo was concurrently based upon a Lee Marvin role, so the throughline of inspiration for creators like Benteen and your contemporaneous collaborator, Roy Thomas, comes through clearly. Given nearly 40 years since, what do both your added experience and the changes in cultural landscape allow you to add to Fargo in its current iteration?
HC: I can’t speak to anyone else you mention in this question. I am personally deeply invested in stories that take place in the era in which Neal Fargo walks his walk. Whatever those changes in the cultural landscape might be, they have no impact on me, or my adaptation of this fully formed character.
CBY: Right - letting the source material speak for itself. It seems there’s a throughline in the embodiment of a certain type of North American masculinity, cultivated in Western imagery from Tom Mix through the Marlboro Man. Ruggedness and individualism are core to both the identity and motives of characters operating in this worldview. You’ve written on the topic of masculinity in some detail previously, and as someone nearly twice my age whose career took off amidst the climate of the Bronze Age Marvel bullpen, I am exceedingly curious - what shifts in perceptions and expectations of men have taken place since FARGO: Hell on Wheels was first published? Layered commentary on gendered expectations isn’t something you’ve been coy about (e.g. - American Flagg, Black Kiss, Mighty Love, etc.) - to that end, what’s your approach to handling gender semiotics in an illustrated adaptation of a story that would certainly have been less introspective on the topic in the mid 1970’s?
HC: None of this has crossed my mind in the least in this process. I take delight in depicting, with as much attention to detail as I can muster, a convincing past. I mean this in regard to physical and narrative details – costume, mise en scene – and in the cultural details, as well.
CBY: It seems I might've done a bit too much deep reading ahead of this interview and made some specious connections! I did realize as I was preparing material for this interview, your Star Wars poster illustrations and issues #1 & #2 dropped in advance of the theatrical release, so for avid comic readers at the time, your imagery would have indelibly imprinted itself in their minds before seeing the film for the first time. Given the initial stylistic approach to the 1970’s pulp covers, how did it impact your own approach to the art and visual conception of Neal Fargo as a character and the world he inhabits in FARGO: Hell on Wheels? How much does that visual aesthetic come from other imagery of both when it was created, and other media from when it was set (a post-Winchester ‘73 Wild West)?
HC: The FARGO novels take place in the early decade of the twentieth century, a transitional time when the fortunes first made in financing the Union army in the civil war, then reinvested in the railroads, were used to invent modern America. Neal Fargo is a 19th century man cut loose in the early years of the twentieth century–which is not to say that he longs with nostalgia for a lost past. He is a man as comfortable in the saddle as he is in any city. So while they might have been previously sold as conventional westerns, these novels are unequivocally about a modern hero dealing with modern problems, albeit in that first decade of the twentieth century, years that brought the automobile, the airplane, and so much of what we take for granted daily.
CBY: Given there is a proprietarily unrelated - but thematically similar - western series in the form of the Gayton Brothers AMC series, Hell on Wheels, (starring Anson Mount, Colm Meaney, and Common), I image they may have taken no small inspiration from Benteen’s stories. I haven’t watched the show, but I’m curious, is it something you gave your attention to when it aired (2011-2016)? How might you characterize a production like that in relation to the artistic direction through which you’re framing FARGO: Hell on Wheels (if you watched it at all)?
HC: I watched a few episodes and never engaged with the show, despite it being right up my alley.
CBY: Well, hopefully your adaptation of FARGO: Hell on Wheels hits that sweet spot for all our readers instead. Regarding your illustration process, how has your process of penciling and inking shifted over the years? How have you selected colorists and other creative team members, and what do you leave to their discretion beyond your directions? Can you tell us a bit about the team you’ve assembled for FARGO: Hell on Wheels?
HC: For the past twenty years, I have been working in a hybrid system, of producing my figures and backgrounds on separate sheets, then combining them in Photoshop. The production and lettering on FARGO are provided by the ever extraordinary Ken Bruzenak, with whom I’ve worked for over four decades. Color is provided by the brilliant Gustavo Yen, a relative newcomer, with whom I’ve done several years of work. This team of mine is a powerhouse.
CBY: From the preview imagery I've seen, I'll certainly agree! I also saw mention of an interview where you noted Tim Sale’s likely inspiration drawn from René Gruau. Obviously Gil Kane, Wally Wood, Neal Adams, and other comic industry luminaries (like Gray Morrow and Joe Orlando) have provided you with inspiration, and you’ve mentioned in previous interviews your appreciation for early 20th century print illustrator, Robert Fawcett. Can you shed some light on other artists you admire that may otherwise go unnoticed by our readers if they’re focused only on creatives working in the comics industry?
HC: The names you mention were my mentors, but I would no longer regard them as influences on the work that I do today. ROBERT FAWCETT, HARRY BECKHOFF, HERBERT PAUS, AL PARKER, ALBERT DORNE are among the names that come to mind in regard to artists whose work casts a long shadow over me and my output.
CBY: I think you've just given our readers plenty of back catalogue searching to keep them occupied. To that end, you’ve cultivated an incredibly multifaceted portfolio over decades, engaging in the industry not only as an illustrator, but also demonstrating incisive writing. Much of your work has been collaborative, so I’m curious - when writing stories, where do you start? Do you find it easier with others to bounce ideas off of and help shape a story, or do you prefer the opportunities to create a cohesive vision of your own when working independently? What creative partnerships have changed the way you work and in your experience, which writers stand out as exemplary professionals and masters of craft?
HC: I have collaborated as part of a writing team, but it’s been many years, and never plan to do such a thing again. I develop narrative in ways similar to the way I draw, rough, to refinement. I am of the mind that an editor is an imperative, and for the past decade or so, that editor has been a man known as Thomas K. Every idea he has costs me time and money, but 99% of those ideas are worth acting on.
CBY: That sounds like a good return on investment. On the topic of working independently, can you share with our readers how you ended up putting together FARGO: Hell on Wheels with Zoop? You’ve worked with a variety of comic publishers from the largest to smaller independent outfits - what led you to the Zoop platform and convinced you it was the right fit for this project?
HC: The putting together of this project has nothing to do with me. I have partners doing the together putting–I am writing and drawing. A delightful scenario, I might add.
CBY: It's great to hear you get to focus on what you most enjoy, and I think we all get to benefit from that scenario. Beyond your current work and preparations around FARGO: Hell on Wheels, what other comics are catching your attention? What films, music, literature, or other art have you enjoyed lately that you’d like to share with our audience?
HC: I’m font of Stephan Franck’s PALOMINO. As for films, etc, the list is too long and life is too short to make too long a list.
CBY: I loved Palomino, and interviewing Stephan was also a treat! Howard, the opportunity to glean some wisdom from your decades of experience doing some of the best work in the industry is something I hope our readers appreciate as much as I have. Thank you for your time and insight, and we look forward to seeing FARGO: Hell on Wheels available to the public soon! If you have any social media or other links you’d like to share, please let us know where to go below.
Check out: https://zoop.gg/c/fargo